The failed socialist Utopia of New Australia, which was founded, and foundered, in the wilds of Paraguay, was a fascinating episode in Australian labour history. In 1892, in the wake of the Queensland shearers’ strike, some 500 members of William Lane’s New Australia movement headed off for Paraguay. Their intention was to establish a collective socialist settlement, a workingman’s paradise. But New Australia was riven by internal conflict and suffered under the twin pressures of Lane’s Messiah complex and the Paraguayan jungle. Many settlers returned home, and their public failure helped dry up the flow of funds and settlers from Australia. By 1894 internal revolt had driven Lane to start a new settlement nearby, called Cosme. The move sapped the funds of the New Australia movement, and did nothing to stem the departures. At New Australia the remaining settlers embarked on a policy of individualism and profit. In 1899 Lane left South America for New Zealand, leaving Cosme to its own devices, and it was cut up into individual titles in 1905. Thus ended the only great Australian socialist experiment ended. However, many stayed on, to raise families and become part of modern Paraguay, and this book is a testament to their tenacity.
Anne Whitehead acknowledges that Gavin Souter’s A Peculiar People (1965) remains the definitive work on the Paraguayan experiment (though 30 years is ample time for historical revision, and the settlement is the subject of new PhD theses). Whitehead’s story is an intensely personal one. As an ABC scriptwriter fascinated by Mary Gilmore, she visited Paraguay in the 1980s and 1990s, and came to know many descendants of the original New Australia colonists. This book traces their lives, and considers the impact that New Australia/Cosme had on Paraguay itself. Whitehead charts a series of visits she made to Paraguay, and assembles a cast of colourful characters in the process.
The first descendants she introduces are the Woods, the last survivors of the first generation of children born at New Australia/Cosme. The nonagenarian brothers, who died during the course of the book’s production, considered themselves part of a country they never saw, and could recite Lawson’s poetry verse for verse. Other New Australia descendants, replete with red hair and Aussie accents, provide an intriguing entry-point into twentieth century Paraguayan politics and history. The Wood family, headed by a stern suffragist matriarch (likened to a figure from Gabriel Garcia Marquez), produced rough-housing big men, and a comic-book author-cum-cultural attache. Ironically, these descendants of socialists all supported the corrupt right-wing regime of President Stroessner. Yet some remained true to the ideals of the original settlers. For instance, the Leon Cadogan, son of the redoubtable Rose, became an anthropologist whose life was devoted to bring the world’s attention to the destruction of the Paraguayan Indians.
The biographical information is embedded in the wild history of Paraguay, and casts an interesting light on many questions of Australian identity, culture and, above all, character, as the informants exhibit many traits valued by contemporary Australians. Whitehead also draws instructive parallels with other communal experiments in Paraguay – the Jesuits, the Mennonites, and Elizabeth Forster’s (nee Nietzsche) anti-Semitic settlement at Antequera. But to describe the book as a collective biography, or as a community or social history, would be a mistake. It is none of these. Indeed, it is difficult to define the book at all.
At this point I would like to say that I had great difficulty finishing the book, despite its subject matter, which touches on a great many of my personal interests. The text is incredibly long, at 585 pages, with an additional 25 pages of notes. However it would be easier to sustain interest if the writing was contained. Understandably, Whitehead reviews the entire history of the New Australia movement, and fits in as many references to individual settlers as possible. She provides much original dialogue, and colours the account with images of the jungle and landscape, and with Paraguayan words and myths. Whitehead has included the comments of many writers about Paraguay, showing great depth of research and a feel for local literature. She also reviews the entire sweep of Paraguayan history, from the Conquistadors to the early 1990s, discusses the characteristics of all of its political regimes, and describes the war experiences of New Australians at Gallipoli and the Chaco. All these things are intensely interesting. Yet they are presented in way too much detail, with way too many adjectives. The quotes from other authors are too long and too frequent. Elsewhere she simply gives too much information. Her account of the life of Marshal-President Lopez, who was leader of Paraguay during the important War of the Triple Alliance, is valuable, but Lopez died a quarter of a century before the Australians arrived. Similarly, the background of the Gallipoli landing is familiar to Australian audiences, and Whitehead would have done better to have concentrated on telling her informants’ stories.
The biggest barrier to enjoying this book is the self-conscious, travelogue style of the author. This book was born of many visits to Paraguay, over nearly ten years, so it is not surprising that the writing has something of the feel of a diary. However, it is this aspect which requires the hardest editing. This is a subject with inherent drama, and it could do without the lengthy travel descriptions and the stylistic flourishes. Neither should the author place herself so much in the forefront. Most disconcerting is Whitehead’s habit of drawing analogies between herself and writers such as Graham Greene – that is a pedestal too tall.
This work cries out for a firm editor, as its essence could have been conveyed in two thirds of the space. Whitehead’s valuable insights, and her incredible experiences become rather bogged down in a morass of words. Nevertheless, this is a very worthy and original book, not least because of its modest conclusion – that New Australia is subsiding into the jungle, leaving barely a ripple on the surface of Paraguayan history. Few historians are so humble about their subject.